NASCAR Takes A Day Off

There aren’t too many days off in NASCAR, but maybe that’s the way everyone involved likes it. Because when there’s an open day on the calendar, the sport’s finest spend their downtime by racing their brains out at GoPro Motorplex, a world-class track for go-kart racing right in the middle of NASCAR-land in Mooresville, North Carolina.

It might seem strange to see NASCAR drivers, crew chiefs, and mechanics playing around with sprint karts at a track with right turns as well as lefts, but stock-car racing has come a long way from the days when Junior Johnson was running whiskey in a Ford V-8 sedan. Now the vehicle that everyone who races cars has in common is the go-kart, and that’s true whether you’re from São Paulo, Brazil, or Charlotte, North Carolina.

At the same time, GoPro Motorplex is go-kart racing gone NASCAR. You’ll stand a good chance of seeing professional drivers like Denny Hamlin, Kasey Kahne, Kyle Larson, Jamie McMurray, or Scott Speed drifting through the neck-stretching 70-mph sweepers of this 0.7-mile track, but the real influence of NASCAR can be seen in the professional caliber of the thirty-acre facility. It begins with a track layout modeled on the Kartdromo Parma in Italy, where road-racing greats such as the late Formula 1 champion Ayrton Senna competed. Meanwhile, the garage complex features a drivers’ lounge, individual lock-ups, a user-friendly paddock, and an outlet for kart hardware. On a Saturday night, the color, noise, and sheer racing intensity match anything you might see at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

When Justin Marks, a thirty-two-year-old driver of NASCAR trucks and Grand-Am sports cars, envisioned this facility with his partners, Michael McDowell and Eric Jones, in 2009, he hoped that it would get some buzz in the Charlotte area, especially since the track is located about twenty minutes from Lake Norman, where many drivers live. Yet even he didn’t expect that the fifty-four garages would all be rented within a few months of the track’s opening in October 2012. Nor did he foresee that the track would host U.S. national championships or that Hoosier would agree to build a spec tire for the go-karts racing here. Most important, NASCAR team managers have largely embraced the place, perhaps because it’s better recreation for their young team members than late-night poker games.

When photographer Rick Dole brought his camera to GoPro Motorplex, the weather was threatening. But the full field of pro drivers and local enthusiasts had a cheerful intensity. Just as a go-kart is simply a racing car reduced to its essence, so, too, the racing at GoPro Motorplex cuts through the commercial responsibilities, political complications, and technological overkill of professional motorsports and offers instead the purity of simply driving as fast as you can.